Aug 29, 2005
Returning to his homeland, the new Pope expressly made a point to visit a synagogue in Cologne, Germany. During the visit, he condemned the Nazi genocide of the Jews as an "unimaginable crime."Yes, a terrible crime was committed against the Jewish people. In Cologne, where the Pope visited, their numbers were reduced from 20,000 in 1933, to fewer than 100 left alive in 1945. The deaths of more than 11,000 of them have been documented, but most of the others disappeared without leaving a trace, exterminated in the Nazi death camps.
Pope Benedict XVI may have noted this, but he ignored the demand to open the Vatican archives, which would shine a light on what the Catholic church did during the Nazi period – just as every other pope has refused during the 60 years since the fall of Nazism.
Nonetheless, the church's tolerance of, and even encouragement to the Nazi regime as it exterminated the Jews in Germany and throughout Europe is well known – as was the church's aid given to some of the most responsible Nazis, helping them to escape in 1945.
Perhaps less well known is the degree to which the church aided the Nazi regime to put itself in power. In the period between the two world wars, a Catholic party, the Center Party, supported Hitler for chancellor in January 1933, and it even had a minister in Hitler's first government. In March of that same year, the Center Party, headed by a high Catholic prelate, Monsignor Kass, gave Hitler their votes in the Reichstag – 92 deputies in all – giving Hitler the votes he needed to assume full dictatorial powers.
The Center Party could not pretend it didn't know what the Nazis were going to do – they were already doing it. All Communist deputies and some Socialists had been arrested before the Reichstag vote – to prevent them from voting against Hitler's dictatorship. Three days before the Center Party voted for Hitler, the first concentration camp opened its doors at Dachau, near Munich. For weeks, the Nazis had been carrying out a reign of terror in workers' neighborhoods. Thousands of communist, socialist and trade union militants had already been rounded up by Storm Troopers, herded into prison, from where they were sent to Dachau – its very first victims.
Exactly at this moment, the Catholic bishops lifted their earlier condemnation of Nazism and appealed to the faithful to loyally support the regime.
In July of 1933, the Catholic Center Party dissolved itself, leaving the field open to the Nazis, the only remaining legal party. Two weeks later, the Vatican signed an accord with the Third Reich, in which the Nazis promised to respect the interests of the church.
Certainly, the Nazis did not fully respect this agreement, and priests who were not docile enough were persecuted. But the church was able to save the essential part of its interests: buildings, institutions, finances. And Hitler demonstrated his recognition of the church when he made it obligatory to pray to Jesus every day in the public schools. He thus overthrew the constitution of the Weimar Republic, which had finalized the separation of church and state in Germany. And he resurrected the taxes that the state had collected from every German – to hand over to the church.
It wasn't until 1937, long after the Nazi regime was firmly installed, with German troops preparing to begin their march through Europe, that the Pope finally took a public position critical of Nazi racist policies. This did not prevent the Pope from offering to send priests along with the Nazi army when it invaded Russia – in order to convert the Russian peasants!
The Catholic Church was not the only church to preach obedience to the Nazi regime and close its eyes to the persecutions of the Jews. The main protestant churches did exactly the same, as the Lutheran church admitted in 1945.
Certainly, not every German Christian supported the Nazi regime. And some of them – pastors, students (like the White Rose group in Munich) or even soldiers – tried in their own way to help people persecuted by the regime. Some even resisted its actions, risking their own lives to do so. But these were always the actions of individuals. The hierarchy of the churches, both Catholic and Protestant, put themselves squarely in the camp of the Nazi regime.
So, of course, the Vatican archives remain closed – locked with "seven seals."